From the 1st Friendly: UBI - An Insurrection of the Imagination

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Our first "friendly", launching The Alternative UK at King's Cross Impact Hub on March 1st, 2017, was a number of things - performance, festival of ideas, visionary challenges, eating and drinking.

But it was also a meeting of the networks and groups we think can help reimagine our broken politics. One of which are the creative industries, and particular the advertisers.  Their powers have been used in many ways by traditional political parties, but not often to lend their powers of persuasion to truly visionary policies.

We asked Phil Teer, strategy director of Brothers And Sisters (who also used to work for the radical ad agency St. Luke's), to take on the task of selling Universal Basic Income (UBI) to the world.

UBI - an income given as a right to all citizens in society - is the idea-de-jour among everyone from anti-poverty radicals to tech moguls like Elon Musk. "A difficult idea to sell", said Phil on the night, "which is why it's interesting to try to do it". Here's how he did it - slides above, text below.


PHIL TEER: Universal Basic Income - An Insurrection of the Imagination

How do you sell the idea of a Universal Basic Income?

The idea that every citizen should be given, unconditionally, a monthly income seems utopian.  It's an old idea, was once proposed by Thomas Paine.  But an idea that is getting a lot of attention right now as automation threatens to start having a real impact upon jobs.  Nevertheless, it’s an idea that most would dismiss as hopelessly utopian.  75% of Swiss voters thought so in a referendum last year.

To change people’s minds would take a bold, broad and far-reaching communication strategy.  It would need to reach deep into culture, utilise the popularising power of advertising and harness support from all corners.  It would be the kind of strategy that a political group or an art group would write up as a manifesto. 

The modern world was built on manifestos.  From politics to art, the manifesto was where ideas really engaged with the world as it was and how it could be.

No-one remembers the text of these manifestos, just the slogans.  The communist manifesto is a dense read but it has a brilliant opening line – there’s a spectre haunting Europe and it’s the spectre of communism – and a great slogan – workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.   

What follows is a manifesto for UBI.  It’s called an Action Manifesto because it is about what needs to be done to actually change minds. It should be an organic, evolving strategy that changes as others engage with it.   Together we can make it about action – about how we would sell the world this impossible idea.

An Action Manifesto

1. Universal Basic Income is about all of us.  Some on the right call it a skivers wage, some on the left worry it is an attack on welfare.  They are right to worry.  Care in the Community was a radical left idea that was hijacked by the right to cut costs.  UBI needs to be set at a level whereby people can live and it should not replace all benefits. 

However, it should be framed as neither a left idea nor a right idea but a forward idea.  It is the big existential question for the age of robots - what would you do if your income were taken care of?  It’s about more people getting the opportunity to realise their potential.  It is all that wasted talent behind tenement windows that Jimmy Reid once described to Billy Connolly; all that undiscovered genius gone to waste.

It’s also about making the game of life more interesting by letting more people play for longer - like £200 when you pass go in Monopoly. It’s about freedom because money is freedom. It’s not a utopian idea any more because it is happening - in Canada, in Alaska, in Brazil, in Finland.  Maybe even in Glasgow.  

2.  We have nothing to lose but our insecurity.  The Precariat may be a dangerous class but it's wrong to demonise the poor.  UBI is not a hand-out to avoid riots or the rise of the alt right.  The effect of automation will be broader than just low paid jobs.  The robots are coming for everyone.  Automation will take out huge swathes of white-collar work.  Tax collectors are as vulnerable as truck drivers. 

But UBI is more profound than this.  All of us have a common enemy in the perpetual insecurity of life in Late Capitalism.  Think Death of a Salesman.  Think The Empty Raincoat.  The job for life Company Man became the portfolio career decades ago and now we have the gig economy.  

UBI is revolutionary because it overturns this fundamental characteristic of capitalist existence: insecurity.  Which is why it will be a very hard sell.  The insecure are thought by some to be more malleable and obedient.

3.  Say UBI and smile.  We have taken one of the most positive and optimistic ideas ever and expressed it in the language of welfare bureaucracy.  Universal Basic Income indeed.  Where’s the romance in that?  

Good advertising gets them at hello.  It grabs attention from first glance.  The acronym has potential.  U-BI.  Everyone’s BI.  We are all BI.  Bi-Financial, BI-Salaried, BI-Waged.  In that case your mum’s BI because she qualifies for basic income like everyone else.  The delivery guy is BI, your cabbie is BI, the wannabe rock stars in the garage are BI.  All artists are BI.  

By being BI we can all turn passion into new income.  By being positive we make it easy for people to like it.

4. Build a Popular Front of the powerful and the morally obliged.  UBI has friends in all sorts of places.  It has friends in Silicon Valley and in politics. Elon Musk and Nassim Taleb are friends.   We need to pool the collective reach of those of influence who either do or really should support UBI.  

There are others who should be friends.  The employers who rely on flexible workforces, the employers who demand free work from interns, the cities like London where increasingly only the wealthy can live, especially if getting a career started involves a period of working for nothing. 

Creative industries should be friends as they rely on talent that, in order to develop, probably went through a period of unpaid nurturing.  Imagine we credited all the unpaid hours that go into creative productions - how many hours did you spend just getting good enough to be able to land the paid job?  

Mums and dads should be friends because they really don’t like being banks.  And of course Henry Ford and every manufacturer and retailer should be friends because robots don’t buy cars.

5.  Unleash an artistic insurrection of the mind.  Before an idea can exist in the real world, it first has to exist in the imagination.  This is what art does.   Art is the future’s early warning system, according to Marshall McLuhan.  It shows what is around the corner.

 In 1982 Alasdair Gray published Lanark, a novel about the impossibility of creating art in Glasgow. Thereafter, art in Glasgow flourished.  The city produced bands, writers, moviemakers and artists in abundance.  Gray showed us that around the corner was Glasgow reborn as a cultural city that has dominated the Turner Prize for the last two decades. 

The idea of art in Glasgow had to be visited first in that novel before the artists could start. In reverse, the idea of a smoking ban was unthinkable until cigarettes disappeared from movies, TV shows and the mouths of pop stars.  

UBI needs artists as much as artists need a basic income.  And we all need artists because artists create markets.  Artistic renaissance in a city creates demand across the whole economy.  The Romantic Poets created the first global consumer trend and created a market that exists today. 

Dreamers in science and science fiction inspire start-ups.  The spirit of punk inspired brewers like BrewDog, Britain’s fastest growing brewery.  All new markets are rooted in the dreams of art and technology.  A basic income gives more people more opportunity to dream.

If you want to change the way people think, you need to change the way they feel.  Universal Basic Income is for everyone.  It’s not a perk nor an attack, it's an opportunity to revolutionise how we live our everyday lives.  Everyone deserves it, everyone’s BI. 

We have nothing to lose but the insecurity that keeps us docile.  We are a popular front of the powerful and our most powerful weapon is art.